Some are calling it an African land grab. It’s led by outside investors with plans for food production, not for Africa but for their own populations. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says acquisition of African land by outside investment groups has stepped up in the last twelve months.
The UN report questions whether it’s a land grab or development opportunity. However, it also says rural people are being displaced or denied access to land for their own food production. Unfortunately, Africans have seen this before.
The rush to Africa by European powers over a century ago resulted in extractive agricultural products that required fertile land and forests. Among other well-documented results from colonialism, it also contributed to ecological damage and left Africans to subsist on marginal land.
Today the Guardian notes some of the world’s richest countries are buying or leasing land in some of the poorest to satisfy insatiable appetites for food and fuel. Food security, changing diets and a demand for biofuels is driving the land acquisition.
An interesting side note; China is not among the largest investors, contrary to popular conception. India, South Korea, some Arab states and Americans are more heavily invested than the Chinese, according to the UN research.
The report says large tracts of land are being purchased or leased for industrial scale export farming. Some African governments agree to rent-free leases while others provide tax incentives based on perceived benefits such as jobs and infrastructure development.
The issues are amazingly complex. A mix of private ownership, government management and traditional community practices affect land management.
The UN report suggests local communities and citizens groups need a voice in land use because they will be affected directly and significantly by leasing arrangements.
Because they have supported small scale agriculture for local food production, non-governmental development organizations including groups such as Church World Service, Oxfam and UMCOR have a direct stake in how land use policies are implemented. Many religious denominations, especially United Methodists, have heavy presence in rural areas where subsistence agriculture is the sole means of support for the people. They have invested heavily in agricultural coops, women’s groups and other community organization efforts. Therefore, land management policies and large scale export agriculture could directly affect their congregants and their communities.
These communities are already disadvantaged, lacking voice, power and money. But the organized groups can provide a platform for them to raise their concerns about land management and access for the people. If development is indeed an outcome of the agricultural leases it should accommodate local input. If not, the community voices ought to be heard to advocate for community interest.
Local congregations and other church organizations that partner with Africans have incentive to learn more about these land leases as well, and to include land concerns in their partnership. To do less is to risk the undoing of much of the work they have been about, in many cases for years. This is a case of policy intersecting with religious concerns in a very specific way.